In this final installment of this month’s series of posts on religion and science, I will present a different take on things from the perspective of a celebrated writer. Marilynne Robinson won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for her novel Gilead. She also delivered the Terry Lectures at Yale in 2009, resulting in the book Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (Yale Univ. Press, 2010), from which I draw the following quotations and summaries.
Robinson’s central point in the book is that the scientific view of the lived life of human beings has been unacceptably downsized and simplified to fit the naturalistic model of human origins, evolution, and behavior.
Modernist or rationalist arguments are not harmonious with one another, except in their conclusion … that positivism is correct in excluding from the model of reality whatever science is (or was) not competent to verify or falsify. The one thing [the theories of Darwin, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, and Skinner] do have in common is the assumption that the Western understanding of what a human being is has been fundamentally in error. This understanding has been based to a great degree on religious narrative and doctrine, and religion has been the subject of their explicit rejection. But the classical and humanist traditions, also deeply influential in Western thought, are just as effectively excluded by these variously determinist and reductionist models of human nature and motivation. (p. xiii.)
The balance of the book takes what Robinson terms “parascientific literature” to task for what she believes is a flawed approach to the question of what it means to live a fully human life. Here’s her description of parascientific literature, which sounds like what is often referred by other writers as “scientism”:
By this phrase I mean a robust, and surprisingly conventional, genre of social or political theory or anthropology that makes its case by proceeding, using the science of its moment, from a genesis of human nature in primordial life to a set of general conclusions about what our nature is and must be, together with the ethical, political, economic and/or philosophic implications to be drawn from these conclusions. (p. 32-33.)
One example she treats is altruism, obviously a hard case for evolution by natural selection to deal with as altruistic actions (to benefit others with no obvious or expected gain to oneself) don’t seem to promote fitness or reproductive success. Recent models of kin selection and reciprocal altruism have convinced some that altruism is just a form of clever self-benefit — it’s not really altruistic at all; practitioners of alturistic acts are (perhaps unknowingly) actually benefiting themselves, and such actions are thereby reconciled with evolutionary models. It is the case that some altruistic human behavior seems more understandable in light of these models. But Robinson notes that strangers still jump into rivers to try to save drowning children not their own, and firefighters still rush into burning buildings knowing it is not their kin inside hoping for a last-minute rescue.
Robinson’s real objection to the naturalized account of human behavior as a theory of reality is that it eliminates the human mind (as traditionally conceived) from the model. After citing the philosopher John Searle, who also has objections to the way the operation of the human mind is presently modeled by many researchers, she concludes, “While it may not have been true necessarily, it has been true in fact that the renunciation of religion in the name of reason and progress has been strongly associated with a curtailment of the assumed capacities of the mind” (p. 75).
As a writer, Robinson naturally emphasizes the particular and the individual over the general. The “curtailment of the assumed capacities of the mind” that she disputes, so convenient for general models employed by researchers, denigrates art and literature (that pesky “classical and humanist tradition” referred to above), a development no writer can let pass without objection. Here is her celebration of the particular.
For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to …. Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM. … [T]hese are words any human being can say about herself, and does say, though always with a modifier of some kind. I am hungry. I am comfortable, I am a singer, I am a cook. The abrupt descent into particularity in every statement of this kind, Being itself made an auxiliary to some momentary accident of being, may only startle in the dark of night, when the intuition comes that there is no proportion between the great given of existence and the narrow vessel of circumstance into which it is inevitably forced. “I am Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” (p. 110-11).
She later extends the same thought from the individual to a community, and I think the reflection applies to humanity and human history as a whole, to one civilization or culture, and even to a church. Seems like a nice quote to end with.
Each of us lives intensely within herself or himself, continuously assimilating past and present experience to a narrative and vision that are unique in every case yet profoundly communicable, whence the arts. And we all live in a great reef of collective experience, past and present, that we receive and preserve and modify. (p. 132.)
Other posts in this T&S series: